My experience in changing how I think about failure.
In my early 20’s I had my first brush (of many) with “failure”. I struggled to hold down a job, was failing college and was terribly unhealthy both mentally and physically. I couldn’t manage money, my personal relationships were a mess and it seemed like there was no way out.
You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but well-intentioned people had taught me a very defined (and narrow) idea of what success looked like. It was a big car, big house, big degree, big paycheck and relaxing on top of the world. I could see this future was not panning out for me and this only made me feel like something was unquestionably wrong with me. Everyone else I knew was passing me by. I constantly wondered what gene I was missing that everyone else seemed to have.
My self-defeating guilt and confusion continued for nearly ten more years. One day, completely overcome by hopelessness, I had a thought. Remember in Pirates of the Caribbean when Will Turner was trying to figure out how they were going to sail to the Isla de Muerta with Jack Sparrow’s compass that didn’t point north? Johsamee Gibs then pips, “Aye, the compass doesn’t point north, but we’re not trying to find north, are we?”
At some point in my life, someone handed me a compass and told me it was all I ever needed. It was different than the compass I was born with. My compass, which I like to think of as having multiple arrows splintering off violently in all directions, was then quietly put away. I didn’t need my compass anymore. It didn’t matter what was innately inside of me. There was already a sure path.
My new compass looked identical to everyone else’s. Sleek lines, one arrow, always pointing north. Myself and many others were told that if we just follow this compass, we would be happy. We would have fulfilling lives. But if I’m being honest, I always had a sense that this new compass was only taking me somewhere I didn’t want to go, even though it was a place I was told I should want to be.
Over 3 years and many thousands of dollars in therapy later, I remembered the compass that I was born with. I wondered if I still had it. Sure enough, I checked my pocket (or more figuratively- my heart) and it was still there. To my surprise, I liked how chaotic my compass was. I wasn’t sure if I would ever actually get anywhere, but it definitely felt more familiar than the straight and narrow path I thought was true.
With this analogy in mind, I looked at myself with kindness for the first time in years. Perhaps I wasn’t getting anywhere because I was using someone else’s path to get to a place I didn’t even want to be in the first place. Maybe I was chasing a version of success that was set up by people who were not me.
I have since set my sails in accord with my original compass and I have to be honest, the journey is not easy. When the sea is rough, I take comfort in the idea that I’m only on my journey and no one else’s. I will get to where I need to be as long as I stick with the current and there is wind. Life happens more slowly on my journey. There is less guilt, hopelessness and overwhelm. There is much less pressure to do something in exactly the right way.
My definition of failure has changed too. At one time, letting anybody down or straying from the path others had laid out for me was the only definition of failure that I knew. Now, I can say with confidence that failure lies in taking a journey that is not in your heart. Much to the dismay of my family, I quit my well-paying job, changed career paths and transformed the way I live since this realization. More changes always seem to come.
Where others see failure in my life, I have seen nothing but opportunity. Where they see off course navigation, I see a once in a lifetime adventure. Maybe those who struggle to follow a compass that is not their own are not failures, but wanderers who can rely on their own innate tools.
I encourage anyone who feels like a failure to question why they feel that way. Are they failing themselves or someone else who lives inside their head? Who defined their benchmark of success anyway? Themselves? A friend or loved one? Society?
By following my own compass I’ve achieved so much more than I have ever thought possible in a very short time. I have found writing, made it a full-time career and am published. My body and brain are healthier than ever before. I don’t have a big car, big house or a big paycheck. But in some way, I achieved everything I ever wanted in my heart. And, I did it all with a compass that didn’t point north.